Rocket Woman

At SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell works to advance space exploration

COURTESY OF SPACEX

THE BIG LAUNCH: The most powerful rocket currently flying is the Falcon Heavy. It generated 5 million pounds of thrust when it launched in February 2018.

PATRICK T. FALLON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Today, typical rocket launches are expensive—not to mention wasteful. A single launch can cost more than $70 million, and most rockets are discarded after just one use. But SpaceX is working to change this. The California-based company founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk has become a leader in the growing private space industry.

For decades, government agencies like NASA were the main players in spaceflight. But SpaceX now regularly launches satellites into orbit and sends supplies and science equipment to the International Space Station. SpaceX has also advanced rocket design by making rockets that are reusable, which saves money and could allow astronauts to make return trips from other planets.

As one of SpaceX’s first employees, Gwynne Shotwell helped the company take flight. The engineer is now SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. She oversees more than 6,000 people, most of whom focus on designing, building, and launching rockets and spacecraft. Science World spoke with Shotwell about her job and SpaceX’s ultimate goal of building a colony on Mars.

What does it take to get a rocket off the ground?

Rockets are massive, complex machines. We launched the Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018, and it’s the most powerful rocket currently flying. It weighs about 1.4 million kilograms (3.1 million pounds) and can lift up to 63 tons into orbit.

Rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, burn liquid fuel in the presence of oxygen (O) to create thrust. This force pushes the rocket upward. A rocket’s thrust has to be greater than its weight. Otherwise, the rocket won’t make it off the launchpad. The thrust created by the Falcon Heavy at liftoff was equal to the force produced by eighteen 747 passenger jets.

How do SpaceX’s reusable rockets work?

Right now, we carry out all of our missions with our Falcon 9 rocket. It’s a tall cylindrical tube that houses engines and fuel in two separate stages, or sections. The first stage lifts the rocket from the launchpad and sets it on a curved trajectory through the air. It then separates from the second stage, which continues carrying the payload into orbit.

We can recover the first stage rocket to reuse with a technique called propulsive landing. As the first stage falls away, thrusters flip it around so its engines are pointing downward. The engines fire multiple times to guide the rocket toward a landing pad on the ground or a drone ship. It’s incredibly difficult to steer the rocket so precisely. Once it gets close to Earth, its engines fire again to slow down its descent for a gentle touchdown. As the rocket lands, legs fold out to hold it in place.

STEVEN BRAHMS

ON THE JOB: Shotwell inspects part of a SpaceX rocket at the company’s factory in California.

What is SpaceX doing to prepare for human exploration of Mars?

Reusable rockets are the first step. Without them, astronauts who someday visit Mars would have no way to get back home.

We’ve been working for a few years on designs for a spaceship that will take people to Mars. It’ll be able to carry 100 tons of cargo and 100 passengers. A round-trip to Mars will take about two-and-a-half years, so astronauts will need to take a lot of supplies with them to survive the long flight.

We’re starting to build the spaceship now and are hoping to do some testing of it this year. We’re aiming to send people to Mars within the next 10 years. Getting there will definitely happen in our lifetime!

When it comes to engineering rockets, do things always go as planned?

No! We’ve had rockets explode, crash, and fail to land. But people learn far more from their failures than from their successes. With success, you tend not to think about what could have gone wrong. With failure, you can figure out what went wrong and fix it. Engineers are never satisfied. They always want to tweak, test, or reanalyze a design.

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